Genetically modified Ghana

A voice of caution on GMOs from the Vatican challenges biotech inroads into sub-Saharan Africa

Published March 16, 2010 10:29PM (EDT)

The Catholic News Service reported last week that the Vatican might have signaled a change in policy on genetically modified organisms by appointing Cardinal Peter Turkson as the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Cardinal Peter Turkson told Catholic News Service March 9 that he would urge an attitude of caution and further study of the possible negative effects of genetically engineered organisms.

Under Cardinal Turkson's predecessor, Cardinal Renato Martino, the justice and peace council sponsored several conferences on genetically modified food as a way to alleviate hunger in poor countries.

Agribusinesses and biotech industries that produce genetically modified organisms are justified in wanting to recoup the expenses laid out for research and development, and they have a right to want to make a profit from their work, said Cardinal Turkson, who took over the reins of the council in January.

But the issue becomes problematic when a company that controls the use of genetically modified seeds and crops is motivated more by profit than by "the declared desire to want to help feed humanity," he said.

Cardinal Turkson is no dope (according to his Wikipedia bio he "is able to speak English, Fante, French, Italian, German, and Hebrew, in addition to understanding Latin and Greek.") Here he seizes upon the crucial point. Every time HTWW covers the issue of genetically modified organisms, some readers immediately accuse me of anti-science bias. But I don't actually have a position on whether GMOs are by definition good or bad for the environment or human health or even the challenge of alleviating hunger in the developing world. My basic stance, in fact, is pro-science: I believe technological advances have greatly advanced human health and affluence, and will continue to do so, if properly regulated. My concern re GMOs has always stemmed from a profound skepticism that profit-seeking corporations can be trusted to responsibly serve the public good. One need look only at the constant stream of reports detailing unethical and criminal behavior by major pharmaceutical companies to realize that this is hardly a hypothetical concern.

In the case of GMOs we are dealing with a remarkable concentration of intellectual property ownership in just a handful of corporations. Like all well-endowed corporate actors, these companies do not shy from vigorously lobbying governments in favor of putting into place place legal frameworks that are designed to maximize profits and minimize caution.

Cardinal Turkson is from Ghana, where this process is exquisitely visible. Most African countries are signatories to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, which calls for national biosafety laws to include something called the "precautionary principle." The precautionary principle puts the burden of proof on those who favor taking a specific action, (such as introducing genetically modified cassava plants into Ghana) rather than on those who resist that action. In other words, a biotech company would have to prove its product was safe, rather than Ghana prove it was unsafe. For understandable reasons, the likes of Monsanto and Syngenta hate the precautionary principle, and are doing everything within their power to ensure that national biosafety laws avoid any mention of such a horror.

If you google Ghana and genetically modified crops, you will very quickly run into the name Walter Alhassan, a consultant for the Accra-based Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), and a strong advocate for the position that Ghana's government "needs to speed up the passage of the Biosafety Bill to the global trend to improve agriculture and food security."


Prof. Alhassan however brushes aside the fears expressed against GM crops. "GM crops are safer than non-GM crops because they go through stringent measures. Those who have expressed misgivings about it are only doing so because of fears of the unknown."

He admits that GM technology could be misused. "It is possible that someone can move one gene from one crop to another to cause problems. But that is why regulatory bodies are set up to ensure that the technology is properly guarded."

But who sets up the regulatory bodies? Tracing a connection between Alhassan and the GMO industry is child's play. Last November, the South African-based Center for African Biosafety documented some concerns about how African biosafety laws were being shaped by foreign biotech concerns. Alhassan's employer, FARA, noted the report's author, Haidee Swanby, was a major player in prepping the region for "the safe deployment of modern biotechnology."

In May 2009 the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) and FARA announced their partnership to launch a 3 year project for capacity building in biosafety in sub-Saharan Africa. The Project on Capacity Strengthening for the Safe Management of Biotechnology in Sub-Sahara Africa will be implemented by the Sub-Regional Organisations and the National Agricultural Research System in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. FARA will manage the $1,265,565 project under the leadership of Professor Walter Alhassan.

Let's be clear here: Syngenta's motivation in strengthening the capacity of sub-Saharan Africa to safely manage the introduction of genetically modified crops is not motivated by a corporate desire to end hunger. Perhaps some Syngenta scientists are energized by such a goal, but the private-sector funding of FARA is authorized under the expectation that it will help carve out new markets for Syngenta products. In the face of such pressure, caution is always warranted.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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